Without meaning to, Bent Hamer’s bone-dry dramedy 1001 Grams asks moviegoers an important question: At what point does “quirky” shade into “ridiculous?” Hamer is best-known in the U.S. for his charming 2003 film Kitchen Stories and the 2005 Charles Bukowski adaptation Factotum. He has a style that leans toward deadpan, real-world absurdity—nothing implausible, but everything just a bit removed from ordinary human behavior. In 1001 Grams, the main character drives a tiny car, lives in an immaculate duplex that she carefully avoids defiling with trash or cigarette smoke, and sleeps under a blanket that only covers one half of her bed. She’s an orderly, efficient person; and apparently Hamer doesn’t think he can get that point across unless everything about her is comically fussy.
Ane Dahl Torp stars in 1001 Grams as Marie, a lonely middle-aged scientist who has followed her father Ernst’s footsteps into the world of weights and measures, working at a Norwegian government agency that regulates the standards of all kinds of measuring devices. When Ernst gets sick, Marie takes his place at an international conference in Paris, bringing along Norway’s official kilogram so that it can be assessed both in comparison to other countries’ and against the global bureau’s century-old kilo. While she’s worrying about national honor and her dad’s health, Marie meets and starts falling for fellow measurement geek Pi (Laurent Stocker), who—true to his name—champions irregularity.
1001 Grams belongs to a very specific foreign/indie film genre: the lighthearted, quietly poignant story about an officious person with a odd job, whose entire life gets upended by one fateful assignment. These kinds of movies—like Local Hero, or The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain—tend to be pretty genial, and 1001 Grams is no exception. In the abstract at least, it’s hard not to root for Marie, who seems like a nice enough person, even if she’s ludicrously over-afraid to deviate from her routine.
But it’d be easier to pull for the heroine if Hamer allowed her to be more than a collection of tics and habits. Unlike the similarly fastidious characters in Wes Anderson’s movies, Marie’s eccentricities aren’t so extreme that she’s recognizably a cartoon. She’s more like a bit player in a Jacques Tati film: one of those office-managers or low-level employees who moves in tight little patterns. There’s no Monsieur Hulot here, though, to provide a human element. Pi is more of a narrative/thematic device than a character—especially when he starts directly challenging Marie with questions like, “How much does life weigh? And love?” Even the visual design of 1001 Grams feels over-determined, beginning with lots of geometrically precise shots of boxy suburban homes before introducing looser framing later in the film, once Marie begins to see the value in allowing a little chaos into her life (for the sake of “balance,” as Ernst would put it).
What saves 1001 Grams from being excruciatingly cute is that it does have a clean look and a pleasant tone, and it’s about a subject that’s both unusual and entertaining. This world of respected nerds—who count atoms, theorize about redefining units of mass, debate the use of electronics in their field, and spout aphorisms like, “A man with two watches is never quite sure”—resembles the milieu of Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess, and is just as fascinating to explore. The difference is that the meaning of Bujalski’s film emerges organically from the awkward interactions of multi-dimensional people, while Hamer fills the screen with types, each waiting for their cue so that they can fulfill their assigned function.